Thursday, November 23, 2017 Elyria 24°


Local nurses recount working in Syrian refugee camp


Inside a small glass goblet sits less than an inch of desert sand from the Zaatari Camp — a refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, which is now home to more than 180,000 displaced persons from Syria.

Every time LaGrange resident Kristin Hoops passes by the curio cabinet where she keeps the goblet of sand, her thoughts turn to Jordan. For Hoops, a labor-and-delivery nurse at St. John West Shore in Westlake, those thoughts and memories are not about the Holy Land, the Dead Sea or the popular tourist city of Petra. Instead, she and her co-worker, surgery nurse Nicki Vacco, think about the wounded, the sick and other patients in desperate need of health care they met as part of a medical and humanitarian mission to Jordan in November.

Dr. Eiad Sayed, who specializes in internal medicine at St. John West Shore, extended the offer to Hoops and Vacco to accompany him on a mission trip to Amman, Jordan, from Nov. 15 to 22. The trip was arranged through Salaam Cultural Museum Medical Mission, a nonprofit organization that provides aid and assistance to displaced Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries to escape the violence in Syria.

Leaving their families behind in the U.S., the two nurses stuffed their suitcases with medical supplies and other necessities, not knowing what awaited them at their destination.

All their medical training and experience could not have prepared them for what they encountered in Amman.

“One lady brought her brother to a clinic, and she was just like me before (the war) happened. Her husband was killed in the war and she has 10 children (to care for),” Hoops said.

Pregnant preteenage girls who lacked proper prenatal care flooded the mobile medical clinics Hoops rode on every day.

“(The girls) have to reproduce. That is their survival tactic, but they have no medical education. Education is the key and it’s just as vital as food and water,” Hoops said. “There were no ‘healthy’ pregnancies there.”

Fighting emotion, Hoops told the story of a 16-year-old pregnant girl in the Zaatari Camp who was an estimated 20-weeks’ pregnant.

“There was no fetal heartbeat and she needed a dilation and curettage (more commonly known as a D & C) to remove the fetus,” Hoops said quietly. “There probably hadn’t been a heartbeat for a while. She needed to leave the camp and go to a hospital or she would bleed to death. The guard would not let us leave the camp. I was crying and my translator was crying. Finally, the girl stopped us and said, ‘Thank you for trying’ and walked into the crowd and left.”

Hoops said she is haunted by the image of that girl nearly every time she closes her eyes.

“That is why I can’t sleep at night,” Hoops, a mom of three, said.

No wound was simply a scratch or a cut.

“I could actually stick my fingers into a wound and feel bone,” Vacco, of Amherst, said.

While Hoops spent most of her days with the mobile clinics, Vacco was stationed nearly every day at a makeshift spinal-cord injury hospital.

It was there that Vacco, who has a 15-year-old son, taught those with limited medical training how to cleanse and bandage not only the wound, but also to care for the skin surrounding the laceration.

Vacco also provided basic physical therapy to patients in dire need of rehabilitation.

The patients had no plans to run a 10K race; they just needed to learn how to live again.

Through rehabilitation, they learned how to walk, dress themselves and take care of basic human needs on their own. They were taught how to move from a bed into a wheelchair without falling.

“We were truly helping. This is what I wanted to do. This is what I went to school for,” Vacco said.

For Hoops, Vacco and Sayed, it wasn’t enough to wake up at 6 a.m. each day, work a 12-hour shift and head back to their hotel in Amman for the night. They were constantly thinking about different ways to help the people living in the surrounding areas of Amman.

One morning, Hoops filled the pockets of her scrubs with hard-boiled eggs. Another morning, Sayed left the hotel with his shirt stuffed with apples. Vacco took bottles of water.

Some days, Hoops didn’t eat her packed lunch. Knowing she had a meal waiting for her in the evening, she gave it to some patients instead. “The simple things we take for granted every day … it’s a luxury to them,” Vacco said.

During one of her days with the mobile clinic, Hoops saw a woman whose baby had a soiled diaper. At the time, there were no diapers in the unit, so Hoops improvised.

“I made a diaper out of the T-shirt under my scrubs,” Hoops said.

Vacco said the mission’s team brought as many medical supplies as they could in their luggage.

“You make it as you go and we did the best we could with what we had,” Vacco said.

Sayed said he visits Jordan every two months and tries to prepare his team the best he can for what they will encounter in the Middle East.

“They saw the pictures and then they saw the trauma firsthand. They didn’t know how much they could help,” Sayed said. “But the Syrians, they trust us and we want to help. It was the best Thanksgiving for us.”

For more information on the Salaam Cultural Museum Medical Mission organization, visit

Contact Melissa Linebrink at 329-7243 or

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